Brazil fracas raises World Cup worry

Posted by Tim Vickery

Piervi Fonseca/AFP/Getty ImagesTigre of Argentina refused to come out for the second half against Sao Paulo in Brazil Wednesday after a halftime brawl near the locker rooms

One of South America's showpiece occasions descended into farce Wednesday night. In the second leg of the final of the Copa Sudamericana, the continent's Europa League equivalent, home side Sao Paulo of Brazil were awarded the trophy after just 45 minutes of playing time. Tigre of Argentina, 2-0 down on the night and on aggregate, refused to come out for the second half after spending the interval fighting with security guards.

Who is to blame for the shameful scenes at the Morumbi Stadium?

As far as events on the field are concerned, it is clear the finger has to be pointed at Tigre. They are a small Argentine club, without a major title in 110 years, who won just a single game in their recent domestic championship. They were outgunned by Sao Paulo, one of Brazil’s giants, and sought to level the playing field by taking things to the limit of legality.

- FIFA tries to allay fears

- Video: Sao Paulo win in controversial ending

- Video: Argentine coach, player claim gun threat

There was rough tackling – though anyone over 35 will recall far worse – and there were also dirty tricks, some sneaky elbows thrown or little stamps on prone opponents – all in the hope of provoking Sao Paulo into losing their emotional control.

Furthermore, they may even take some grim satisfaction from the outcome. There seemed little chance of Tigre staging a comeback in the second half, and every chance of them conceding more goals. But instead of a meek return home as the heavily beaten side, they could fly back to Buenos Aires with the indignant air of victims of injustice. This may well have suited their purpose. But that it not to say that no injustice existed.

Visiting sides in South America are consistently on the end of absurd treatment. There is the obvious – objects thrown at players on the pitch or the team bus as it approaches the stadium. And there is the more subtle – the bus driver deliberately getting lost on the way so the visiting side will have less time to prepare.

Sao Paulo surely overstepped the mark by forbidding Tigre to train on the pitch the day before the game. The excuse given was damage to the playing surface caused by a recent Madonna concert. It is not convincing. This was the last game of the season. What was the pitch being protected for?
This was the cause of the first flare-up between the Tigre players oand the security guards provided by Sao Paulo.

Tigre wanted a pre-match warm up on the field. The security guards tried to stop them. Pushing and jostling ensued – a precursor of what was to come.

At the half-time whistle more jostling took place between the sides. But it is what then happened out of view, down in the tunnel, that ensured the game would not resume.
Tigre claim they were ambushed by the security guards, who set about them with sticks.

Sao Paulo’s version is the Tigre players tried to invade the home dressing room, and the security guards acted to prevent them. This is a crucial distinction, and the truth needs to be discovered. What is not in doubt is that a full blooded fight erupted.

At this point it appears that the local police intervened. They say they stepped in to separate the warring factions. From Tigre’s perspective, this was seen as more people joining the attack against them. The severity of the battle is made clear by the scenes of blood and destruction in the Tigre dressing room.

Was a gun waived about at the visiting players, as Tigre allege? It is a serious claim. The chief of police seemed carefully evasive when asked about it. No, he said, no one in the warring factions was armed. It came across as an answer crafted to exclude the actions of his own men – who by his definition were peacemakers, and therefore not part of the fight.

So did a member of the police get his gun out? If so, it would seem to contravene the common sense recommendation of dealing with such incidents – use the minimum force necessary. Whatever the circumstances, this common sense recommendation does not appear to have applied to the actions of the security guards, who one might hope were well trained to deal with stressful situations.

With depressing predictability, perspectives on the battle of Morumbi seem to be shaped exclusively by nationalistic considerations. For the Argentine press, the whole thing was a disgrace, a setup to beat up their boys. In the Brazilian media the Argentines are the villains, who came in search of confusion and reaped the very chaos they had sown.

This time, though, the stakes are higher. The entire planet is watching – and worrying about the recurrence of similar scenes when Brazil stages the next World Cup, just a year and a half away.

The good news is that there is little chance of such an incident taking place inside a World Cup venue. For the duration of the competition the stadiums are handed over, lock, stock and barrel, to FIFA. Private armies of out-of-control security guards are unlikely to be invited.

Crowd control outside the stadiums may well be a bigger cause for concern. In a country the size of Brazil, policing such a nationwide event is a huge challenge. There is clear potential for turf wars between different authorities, and for different interpretations of how to deal with fans in the various host cities. Crowd control is not always a speciality of the Brazilian police, who have an unfortunate reputation for truculence.

If they did not already know it, those responsible for crowd control in 2014 should have learned an important lesson from the events of Wednesday night. If they get it wrong, the world will be watching.

Tim Vickery is an English football journalist who has lived in Brazil since 1994 and specializes in South American football.

ESPN Conversations